BOOK REVIEW: a Way with Animals

A Way with Animals (A Studio book)

1978’s A Way with Animals begins with Jeremy Bentham quote that has appeared in so many animal rights materials:

The question is not, can they reason, nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?

However, in this study of people who work with, study, and engage in recreation with animals, there are many practices we now consider questionable at best, outright cruel at worst. The theme of Way is clearly supposed to be the bond between animals and their caretakers and trainers. Indeed, in a few of the stories, the affection between the two beings appears to be mutual: Koko the gorilla and her handler, a rabbit who lives at a church nursery school. But most of the other “relationships” appear to be unequal ones based on coercion. Food deprivation seems to be a favored method of forcing an animal’s cooperation across the board. Consider these snippings from the text:

“Some [dolphin trainers] deal with their show animals as a team. If one of the animals does something wrong, nobody gets fed. … I figure the wrongdoer is my problem and that anybody who does his behavior right is entitled to eat.”

“I hadn’t fed [the dolphin] for two days since he started this hassle.”

The training of a camel usually starts when the animal is about three years old. The keys to the process are a small hole cut in the camel’s nose when he is quite young … The camel is left outside the tent for five days without food. The trainer then approaches and tried to lead him with a rope tied through the rope hole. If the camel refuses, the process is repeated five days later. After no more than twenty days of starvation the camel will usually allow himself to be led.

After a newly caught elephant has been starved for a few days, he is offered bananas.

One basic element in the whole process is feeding—or rather, not feeding. If you get a falcon hungry enough, he will do things for food that he might otherwise be most reluctant to do. … You can see a lot depends on the bird’s being hungry.

The first chapter, on dolphin training at a marine park, begins with a curious choice of a quote by Thoreau:

Who hears the fishes when they cry?

This was the era in which dolphins and whales were snatched from the ocean for the lucrative marine park industry; at one time, capture was more or less a free-for-all. The black and white photographs of the now-defunct California marine park show dolphins in a small concrete tank decorated in a carnival fashion, as well as the circus-style tricks that were favored during this era: a dolphin leaping through a hoop of fire; a trainer sticking his head into a killer whale’s mouth.

The animals’ trainer shows a surprising amount of insight and sensitivity when describing the experience of a captured dolphin:

“[T]he dolphin gets captured, transported, and stuck in a tank. Every detail of his life and surroundings is controlled by man, a creature he’s likely never to have seen before. Just think of what his sonar system has to go through and his digestive system, which suddenly has to deal with dead fish. To say nothing of his nervous system and the emotional shocks. That process of acclimation is a long, tortured birth process.

So difficult, in fact, that some refuse to eat altogether. A little bit later, however, the trainer snaps right back into business mode:

Nowadays you usually get animals from a middleman who has acclimated them and guarantees you a “feeder.”

(Classy. )

Beasts of burden, in the form of camels and working elephants, are also profiled. We learn of camels and their riders,

There is no indication of general fondness for the creature.

Nevertheless,

Camels are used to transport people, to pull, to haul, and to provide sport (camel races, camel fights).

Camel races and camel fights. Will humans ever run out of ways to use every other being on the face of the planet?


Of the pachyderms, we learn, step-by-step, how wild Indian elephants are captured, “broken,” and trained for work. When one considers the degree of intelligence and self-awareness of the elephant, it makes for especially tough reading. And while the text makes clear that some mahouts eventually form a deep bond with their charges, they also are shown carrying the largest bullhooks I’ve ever seen; at least a foot taller than the men themselves. We also learn that the best workers are then used in show training, where they do circus style tricks for crowds. (What a delightful reward for you, elephants! *facepalm*)

However, the most disturbing story, so much that it even upset the author himself, is of Heinz the falconer. Falconry is a form of hunting in which captive falcons are taught to capture “game” animals for their handlers. Heinz recounts capturing his first falcon at age 17, and he has hunted for, and with, birds of prey ever since. The author explains:

He is, and has been since childhood, a sportsman—one who takes pride in his skill in killing animals by a variety of ritually restricted means.

While he respects the man, the author does not fall for all of Heinz’s excuses for his sport. He writes,

It is, however, a fact that falconry is an act of man and not of nature. And it’s the falconer who gets the felled prey. So the issues become those of any form of sport hunting.

Heinz’s targets are not just the falcons he captures and the small game animals he hunts. Like many other falconers, he maintains a large flock of live pigeons to release for hunting exercise and for regular feeding. And like many other hunting sports, there is the occasional element of sadism present. Heinz finds humor is outsiders’ reactions of his snapping live pigeons’ necks. He seems to get a special thrill out of shocking women with gruesome scenes and stories. Read into that what you will.

The author must have felt so bad about falconry, in fact, that he actually apologized at the end of the book!

You should know that I’m uneasy about the falcon story. Something in that episode touched off in me a strong negative emotional response.

The last chapter looks at Koko the gorilla, who has been taught American sign language and can communicate with people. After all of the falconry and camel riding and food restriction, the author becomes a little more reflective:

It is undeniable that human beings and animals can talk to each other, and it is undeniable that Koko has a sophisticated range of intellectual and emotional responses. … Perhaps we will find that we share with [animals] what used to be thought of as great, fundamental human experiences.

Despite a few good elements such as the Koko story, this is not a book I can recommended to modern audiences. The animal-related content is as embarrassingly dated as the inclusion in a children’s book of a photo of the author dragging on a cigarette (which this book also features).

(Review originally appeared at goodreads.com)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Understand an Australian Accent
    Nov 06, 2011 @ 15:29:25

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  2. Abdul Fury
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 21:19:21

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